Most analyses of Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and the ongoing turmoil in Egypt - as well as similar upheavals in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen - have framed it as an “Arab crisis” in the “Arab world.” It is convenient to use Arab and Arabic in making sweeping generalizations about countries and societies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The riots and protests have spread like a contagion throughout “Arab societies,” we are told, and “Arab countries” are in crisis in no small part because they are, well, “Arab.”
But this use of Arab obscures rather than clarifies the causes of these uprisings against repressive authoritarian regimes. Upon closer examination, there is in fact nothing uniquely Arab about the upheavals. Mass unemployment, rising prices for food and energy, reliance on rents from the sale of oil, inadequate urban infrastructures, failing agricultural sectors, water scarcity … It is this noxious mix, combined with increasingly widespread information technology - and not cultural factors - that undermines corrupt, authoritarian regimes within MENA and beyond.
There’s a long tradition of framing generalizations about Arab society as discerning analysis. At times, purported analyses descended into blunt stereotypes. For example, Daniel Lerner's Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958) and Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind (1973) each claimed to offer essentialist analyses of Arab society, yet offered little insight. Giacomo Luciani’s The Arab State (1990) listed the characteristics of Arab governments: they were corrupt, reliant on rents, patrimonial, and authoritarian, with sharp anti-agrarian and pro-industrialization biases. To state the obvious, however, such characteristics can be found in non-Arab oil-producing regimes such as Iran, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Venezuela. More recently, usually perceptive New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has taken a concerning turn, for example, declaring that Arabs are prone to conspiracy theories in “The Captive Arab Mind” (December 20, 2010), speculating that Tunisia is “The Arab Gdansk” (January 17, 2011), and positing that the Internet has undermined specifically Arab notions of honour in “Facebook and Arab Dignity” (January 24, 2011).
Challenging the use of Arab and Arabic is not a matter of being politically correct - although there should be nothing wrong with avoiding careless cultural stereotypes. The problem is that the adjectives are too blunt. They rarely bring insight or contribute to policy solutions. Is there something uniquely Arab about the prevalence of conspiracy theories? Hardly. Are social dignity and honor more important in an Arab context than in others? That too would be hard to argue. Even if that were the case, what then?
It is one thing to emphasize the role of the Arabic language in spreading news of tumult around the region - and thereby in emboldening increasing numbers of people to protest. The increasingly widespread availability of the Internet only amplifies that role. Rather than Weber’s legitimate use of violence, the state’s authority may derive more from the legitimate use of information. Yes, the region is erupting in part because Tunisians and Egyptians and Saudis and Yemenis happen to share a lingua franca.
But it may be more about the fact that the countries are found in a strategic, climatically-challenged region. Some of these countries possess abundant oil resources; some do not. Geographical attributes such as high temperatures and scant rainfall, coupled with rapidly growing populations, have encouraged their regimes to rely on food imports. The deeper problem is that they are caught in a vicious bind: they depend on rising energy prices to provide the revenues they need to purchase food commodities that are, in significant part, made more expensive by those same rising energy prices. Yet these issues are common around the world, among oil- and non-oil-producing countries alike. Non-Arab countries in the MENA region -such as Turkey and Iran, and even Morocco and Algeria with their significant Berber (non-Arabophone) populations - are prone to instability. Similar upheavals have already appeared outside the MENA region, too, in Kyrgyzstan, flood-ravaged Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Reuters reported on Monday that there were anti-government riots in Moscow. This winter, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, as well as agriculture ministers from sub-Saharan Africa, have signaled their anxiety about the prospects for food riots in East and Southern Africa, much as were witnessed in the winter of 2009.
To frame the crisis in the region as an “Arab crisis” is to risk essentializing the problem in another, unique “world.” Worse, it takes attention away from the policy reforms needed to regulate international food commodity markets, prosecute unscrupulous and illegal commodity speculators, craft alternative energy technologies, and withdraw longstanding foreign assistance proffered to authoritarian regimes because of narrowly-conceived geostrategic interests.
Jasmine is the national flower of Tunisia. If you stroll Tunis’s downtown boulevard, Sharia Habib Bourguiba, you will likely encounter a smiling vendor pressing the fragrant flower into your hand, expecting a sale. Yet jasmine is ubiquitous throughout the region and beyond. In fact, it happens to be the national flower of many countries outside “the Arab world,” too.